Relationships and sex education: What you need to know

New relationships and sex education guidance is about to come into force. Here’s what schools and teachers need to be prepared for and where to find help to ensure this important topic is covered correctly

Sally Martin

Ofsted can decided to convert its visits to schools into formal inspection, according to new guidance published today.

The guidance to relationships and sex education has had a delayed introduction owing to the pandemic.

However, from September, all schools and colleges are expected to have their updated curriculum in place. Therefore, all teachers and school staff will need to be up to date with their knowledge of what is and isn’t on the syllabus.

So here is everything you need to know about the changes to relationships and sex education guidance and where to get support to ensure your teaching of this topic is up to scratch:

What’s changing?

Since September 2020, schools must teach relationships education in key stages 1 and 2, relationships and sex education in key stages 3 and 4, and health education in key stages 1 to 4. 

This compulsory relationships, sex and health education content – sometimes referred to as RSHE (or RHE in some primaries) – is outlined in the government’s statutory guidance.

These measures have broad appeal – schools, parents and pupils understand the need for education that keeps children and young people safe, healthy and prepared for the modern world. 

Why has there been a delay? 

Owing to the extreme pressure on schools and teachers during the pandemic, the government postponed its implementation for a year.

Everyone’s Invited, Ofsted, and relationships and sex education

There has been a greater sense of urgency since the Everyone’s Invited website highlighted the extremely troubling prevalence of sexual harassment in schools.

Ofsted’s subsequent review of sexual harassment confirmed the extent of the issue and called on schools to prioritise RSHE in light of concerns about current standards.

Among Ofsted’s primary concerns were the lack of sequencing of content in many schools, which confirms the necessity of regular curriculum time within a broader programme of personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education – as well as the importance of training PSHE professionals to deliver this content. RSHE will therefore be a greater focus for inspections going forward.

What schools and colleges need to do

It is important to recognise that many schools are already doing a great job in this area, while others are on the right track and will get where they need to be with the right support. Below, we outline a few key steps to take.

Changes for middle leaders

Schools will need to have a middle leader responsible for RSHE. This, for many schools, is likely to be the PSHE lead, given their familiarity with planning the curriculum, monitoring its effectiveness and supporting teachers in the classroom.

Key RSHE actions for middle leaders include:

  • Ensuring that the school has an updated relationships education/relationships and sex education policy. This is a requirement and should clearly set out the school’s approach, including parental right of withdrawal from sex education. It is good practice to have a health education policy as well or a general PSHE education policy that includes everything.
  • Checking that teaching leads to “end of primary school” or “end of secondary school” expectations of what pupils should know and understand.
  • Monitoring that this content is being taught at an age-appropriate level throughout the school. The PSHE Education Programme of Study (KS1-5) outlines what content schools can cover at various stages.
  • Supporting teachers delivering any new content by providing whole-staff training or individualised coaching.
  • Working within pre-existing school systems to engage with parents as part of consultation for policy development and to inform them of curriculum content.

In addition, middle leaders should consider what Ofsted’s greater focus on RSHE might mean in practice, so they should be able to:

  • Talk confidently about the development of the school curriculum, including health and relationships and sex education, and explain how it meets the needs of pupils in the school and keep them safe.
  • Identify how key learning is sequenced to build pupils’ knowledge, understanding and skills coherently as they move through the school.

Changes for classroom teachers

Many teachers have already been delivering RSHE as part of their school’s established PSHE education programme. However, the statutory guidance has a number of implications for experienced and novice teachers.

Classroom teachers should take the following key actions:

  • Familiarise themselves with their school’s updated or revised relationships education/relationships and sex education (RSE) policy. This will outline the school’s agreed ethos and may have specific requirements on handling questions and using approved resources.
  • Reflect on their classroom expectations so that they can set high standards for RSHE learning.
  • Familiarise themselves with new topics included in statutory guidance (for example, awareness of miscarriages for older secondary pupils or basic first aid for primary), and additional guidance on inclusion and differentiation.  
  • Understand the updated terms regarding parental right of withdrawal from sex education aspects of RSHE as outlined in the statutory guidance.

Teachers may also expect greater focus on their RSHE practice while schools get used to new expectations but this should be accompanied by training and support to ensure they are confident and comfortable with what they are teaching.

What can schools and colleges do now?

Key considerations and actions include:

Content

Schools and colleges must ensure statutory content is covered within a planned, sequenced programme. 

Ofsted’s review of sexual harassment raised concerns that some schools approach statutory RSHE as a tick-box exercise, and suggest that “a carefully planned and implemented RSHE curriculum” is required.

Statutory content should ideally be covered and sequenced within a broader PSHE curriculum that includes non-statutory elements relating to economic wellbeing and careers.

The needs of your context

It is important that there is a period of establishing pupils’ needs. Schools and pupils will have different needs and circumstances, so it is important to audit your curriculum to ensure it is tailored accordingly.

The ongoing effects of the pandemic are likely to warrant greater focus on aspects such as mental health, physical health and building/maintaining relationships.

Training for staff

Teaching staff need to be trained to deliver safe, effective RSHE lessons. They must also be familiar with all relevant school policies.

Administrative compliance

All schools and colleges need to publish their relationships education/relationships and sex education policy on the school website alongside an overview of how content is covered.

They must also consult with parents on policy development. Parents should understand that they can only withdraw their children from sex education but not other parts of the PSHE education curriculum.

From three terms before pupils turn 16, they can request to receive sex education rather than being withdrawn, so it is important to have a plan in such cases.

Resource curation

When it comes to choosing high-quality resources, there are many materials to pick from but not all are reputable or safe, so take time to consider resources carefully. PSHE Association programme builders highlight relevant quality assured resources for various aspects of the PSHE/RSHE curriculum.

Where to read more?

The below are some key documents, resources and content that can help you develop your PSHE/RSHE curriculum

Guidance on preventing sexual harassment in schools:

Sally Martin previously taught in East London before joining the PSHE Association as part of its subject specialist team

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Sally Martin

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